Skip to main content

New Facial Recognition Research Turns Heads

A new study by researchers including Bosco Tjan of psychology suggests that facial recognition hinges on recognizing the face’s features more than the “holistic” picture they add up to create.
A new study by researchers including Bosco Tjan of psychology suggests that facial recognition hinges on recognizing the face’s features more than the “holistic” picture they add up to create.

A team of researchers that includes a USC Dornsife scientist methodically has demonstrated that a face’s features or constituents — more than the face per se — are the key to recognizing a person.

Their study, which goes against the common belief that brains process faces “holistically,” appears this month in Psychological Science.

In addition to shedding light on the way the brain functions, these results may help scientists understand rare facial recognition disorders.

Humans are great at recognizing faces. There are even regions in the brain that specifically are associated with face perception — the most well-known one is the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobe.

Common wisdom has it that humans recognize the face “holistically,” meaning that it is something about picture created by the entire face — the particular arrangement of a face’s eyes, nose and mouth and not just these features themselves — that makes it easier for the human brain to make a positive ID.

That common wisdom appears to be wrong.

 


USC Dornsife's Bosco Tjan. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf

“There is this belief that faces are special,” said the study’s co-author Bosco Tjan, associate professor of psychology in USC Dornsife. “But why? How is the face special?”

To use an automotive metaphor, would it be easier for a car aficionado to identify a ‘58 Corvette by its distinctive quad headlights, chunky chrome grille and swoop on the side or if shown the car that all these pieces make when added together?

Tjan and collaborators Jason M. Gold, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University (IU), Bloomington and IU undergraduate student Patrick J. Mundy tested participants on how accurately they were able to identify a set of faces by the parts of those faces — the nose, left eye, right eye or mouth.

Then, using a well-established formula that Tjan developed in an earlier study, the researchers extrapolated how accurately each participant should be able to identify an entire face.

If humans were better at face recognition than nose or eye recognition, one would expect each participant to do a better job of identification when the features are all arranged together into a face. But, in fact, the participants did a little worse than predicted by Tjan’s formula.

Facial recognition, it appears, hinges on recognizing the face’s features more than the “holistic” picture they add up to create.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research.